March 2018

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For most small businesses the name is the brand. I suspect, that is why small businesses remain small. For mid-size businesses, the name is also the brand, but there tends to be a need for more marketing and sales support; there is stationery, a website, boiler plate copy for press releases, a need to explain company ethos to new hires. In other words, the need for branding elements.  Whoever creates the elements is the de facto brand manager. When it falls to the CEO, it is probably on target strategically, but inelegant.  In a mid-size company, if there is a marketing person, the branding elements have a chance. 

Large companies have marketing people and marketing departments. They are awash in branding elements.  Smart large company marketing departments have brand strategies. Most do not. A brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Every company can benefit from a brand strategy. From a one-woman shop to a billion-dollar healthcare system.

Beautiful things can come from disorganization – from random assemblages. But not brands. Not brands.



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There are some fun Capital One commercials running on the NCAA Tournament this year featuring Spike Lee, Charles Barkley and Samuel L. Jackson.  There’s a racial tinge to the spots which are kind of grown up or adult.  It shows these very funny black comedic actors in various Texas locations/scenarios. In one they are shopping for cowboy clothes. In another they’ re out on the range riding horses, or in Spike’s case a donkey, singing Waylon’s Luckenbach, TX.  

The actors are not uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable for them. (The Final Four is in San Antonio this year, hence the Texan themes.)

Did Capital One or their ad agency expect this little cultural incongruity in the advertising design?  I think so. And I love it. It makes a statement, with a smile and is still good entertaining trade craft. It’s humorous.  It’s thoughtful. It’s youthful. And a little bit discomfiting.  

Any marketer that can take on race with humor and make us all a little embarrassed it’s still “a thing” is worth paying attention to. Capital One, putting on some big girl pants. 




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The problem with most brands is that they are skin deep. Products and services with derma measured only in millimeters. No  depth. No real rational and emotional meaning. Why is that?  Because brand building today is too randomized. No real brand plan.  No organizing principle driving long term, meaningful KPIs.

Sales and revenue are all that matters. Sales teams are motivated by commissions. Retail buyers are motivated by bonuses. Ad agents make money off of fee hours and volume.  And media is paid by the media transaction, not the result.

It makes me think of healthcare – where docs and hospitals are compensated for helping the sick, not preserving the healthy.

Brand planners dig beneath the skin. We get down to the organs. When we organize the selling principles, it’s not a Colorforms project, based on cut-and-paste tactics and theatrics. It’s a plan to build value leveraging what a brand is good-at and what consumers care-about. A plan driven by a deeply seeded claim, one that warms the hearts of brand employees and customers.

Salespeople can “sell anything,” they will tell you. Brand planners only want to sell one thing. Tink about it, as my Norwegian Aunt would say.




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It’s great that Walmart wants to create greater shareholder value by getting into the groceries-to-the-home business, but I’m not so sure it’s good for the planet.  I recently spoke to a younger mom who energetically juggles her work and family lives — she uses Walmart’s delivery to the curb service.  She drives to Walmart and pops the trunk, they fill it. Another nice service to help us get more done – while doing less foot shopping (not a “food” shopping typo).  But having groceries and perishables delivered to the home in advance makes me wonder what will happen to all the waste.

As a society we’re already tossing out too much food. Ask a restauranteur. Ask a homeless person.  It’s mega tons.

You can argue that driving to the store to pick up just-in-time groceries is bad for the planet and I won’t disagree. I need to do better, even in my fifteen-year-old, 42 MPG Prius. My gas mileage is prob way better, though, than any Walmart van or Uber Ford Focus.

Walmart has a tough time ahead competing with Amazon.  Bricks, steel and mortar are costly. Groceries will only provide incremental help to Walmart’s bottom line. They best look elsewhere. They best look for a whoosh.


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I love this quote I wrote a few years back for a presentation to Gentiva Health Services, now owned by Kindred Healthcare: “Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.”  It’s so true.

Ad campaigns get tired. Were I to guess, I’d venture the length of an average ad campaign is 2.5 years.  Why is that? Brand managers and agency creators get tired of it. They burn out. Also on the agency side, there’s a little “not invented here” syndrome. 

Campaigns are an expression of the brand brief – at least they are supposed to be. Smart marketers who change the ad campaign stick to  the brand brief; they just sing it in a different color.  But not all marketers follow this logic. For many, when the campaign changes the brand brief changes. And the brand becomes a moving target. Agencies love to change the brief, and unseasoned client marketers let them. The result is the dissipation of muscle memory around the brand claim. And everyone must start anew. Market share flails. First positively, then negatively. And in 2.5 years, it’s time for a new campaign.

My best brand strategies last decades. Ad agencies come and go, marketing directors come and go, the brand strategy remains.  Indelible.




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I Like Myopia.

I’ve read a number of pieces by brand planners who advocate “question everything.”  Look at a problem, then look at it from many other directions. Point-counterpoint. Question everything was driven home to me early in  my career with McCann using AT&T’s heavy-handed reliance on consumer research and message testing. It was healthy to listen to consumers share likes, dislikes, preferences and attitudes.  I grew as a result.

But today my brand planning rigor is more fluid. I do not stop and question myself. I don’t look at the obverse. It’s a buzz kill. It kills the poetry. As a rapper might say if I’m in the “flow” I don’t want to break it. So on I go.

Clients are the ones I rely on to question my brand strategy (one claim, 3 proof planks). I like to think, after all my deep digging, marinating, cogitating and “boil down,” that all sides have been considered. And it’s time for flow.

If this approach seems myopic, so be it. But a good brand idea, a big brand idea, is usually rooted in flow, not the result of over analysis.


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It’s hard for me but don’t want to get into politics when I talk about Meredith Corporation, the venerable magazine publisher – so I will leave the Koch Brother’s backing of Meredith’s purchase of Time Inc for another day. I will however dig into a bit of the Meredith brand. Magazines are dead the way TV was dead 10 years ago.  Yeah, the model may change, the revenue redistributed, but magazines, written by smart people, supported by wonderful pictures are not going away.

Meredith Corporation, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa is and ever-shall-be a heartland company. America needs more and more of these companies. Even some in Silicon Valley, tired of the sturm und drang, are looking to moving inland a skosh. What I like about Meredith is they know who they are. Check out the picture of the trowel in front of headquarters.  The artist who designed this amazing, simple piece of art interpreted the company better than 100 brand strategists.

As a branding element, this trowel is genius. It’s size, color, placement on the property – reminds employees and visitors every day what’s up at Meredith. Get your fingers dirty, get on your knees and close to the problem, start small to grow big. I love it.

This is a wonderful example of art bringing paper to life.   I make paper strategy and I am so envious of those who build the stuff that gives it birth.




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I read something smart in an account planners group on Facebook yesterday about targeting. It suggested you have to refine the brand target so as to make a more compelling message. When creating your brand claim, you don’t want to address the entire consuming pop. Not everyone will like you. You have to find the largest grouping of people who share a proclivity for your product, service and brand claim — and focus the strategy on them. 

It’s so smart.  I had the same targeting discussion with a client yesterday.

When you do enough research on brand good-ats and consumer care-abouts, you’ll find that you can’t please everybody. It is at this point that the rubber meets the road. Do we change who we are? Do we try to change the attitudes and beliefs of what consumers think and know? Or do we simply speak to the low and “reach for” fruit that will most likely be motivated to buy our product?

This is how we do-oo it!  Peace.


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I so love what I do.  (To many “I”s?) The job is learning. Then processing. Then assembling. And lastly, writing a little poetry — whiich becomes the brand claim.  For years in the business as a pseudo strategist I wrote briefs as an advertising account manager. My selling ideas lacked soul.  The briefs were fodder for creative people who typically didn’t like us, they called us “suits.” But as I started reinventing myself as a brand strategist, I allowed my selling ideas (claims) to pick up some whimsy. Lightness. Poetry.

The poetry is what keeps me in the game. It helps me know when I’m done with the idea. My most far reaching brand idea “systematized approach to improving healthcare,” done years ago for multibillion dollar organization, lacked poetry. It probably needed to.

Today, I have the time and type of clients that want poetry in their claims. It makes them remember. It creates a little Zen moment. It reminds them of the love inherent in their brands. Poetry gets marketing clients to love what they do. 


PS. Sean Boyle introduced the word “poetry” to me as it relates to planning. A thousand thanks.



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I’ve been reading a lot about Artificial Intelligence, self-driving cars and trucks, brick layers whose jobs are in jeopardy because of robots….and that’s just in today’s paper. As a brand planner I have to admit it makes me a bit giddy to think about what the art of branding will be like when things are more automated.  I suspect there will be more compliance. The biggest hurdle to compliance when it comes to following brand strategy is, ta-dah, the people. The creative brain. The need to problem solve in one’s own unique way.

Coloring outside the lines in brand strategy doesn’t work. Its s slippery slope. Brand managers get sidetracked. They see something shiny and skirt away from the claim and proof array that is their brand’s organizing principle.  SEO and Adwords might go off on a tangent that spikes sales. A new TV campaign might hit the front page of Vice. Little marketing tickles that cause a brand to veer.

Machines won’t let that happen. They are relentless. Machine learning is focused…and relentless.

Kind of stoked. Peace.


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